Very few people actually enjoy flying. Most of us, if we tolerate it at all, just grin and bear it.
The frustration usually starts even before we get to the airport. It is all very strange and can be confusing. Unless we are very regular air passengers, there is the stress of finding the airport, then finding the correct car park and correct terminal. The rush to get the baggage out of the car or the coach, then the long, long wait to check in and to get rid of our cases can be very stressful.
Finally, we check in. Oh the relief at being free from wheeling those heavy suitcases about. We now just have our hand luggage to look after and can queue up for that very expensive cup of coffee and, if we can justify the cost, perhaps a slice of cake.
The children, if we have them with us, are getting bored by now, so perhaps you can find something to amuse them at an airport shop? A model aircraft perhaps? Only £80 to you sir. Go on dad!
Eventually, after what seems like hours of boredom and torture, we are allowed through security and into the departure lounge. First of all, we have that embarrassing search where we have to remove our shoes and belt. We paddle about in our socks, holding up our trousers with one hand while we try to load the conveyor with our hand luggage, phone, laptop, keys, camera, coins, jewellery and whatever else may set the their alarm off. We walk through the gate hoping that it does not get triggered by anything that we have forgotten or the fillings in our teeth. If we are lucky, we are allowed to get dressed again and proceed through to the very expensive departure lounge. If we are unlucky, as happened once to me, our cases are emptied and thoroughly searched with a hand-held sniffer device. The person searching will have no sense of humour so don’t make any jokes or even light-hearted comments as they will not be appreciated. On this occasion, I had stupidly packed a friend’s outdoor clock next to two large bars of chocolate and the batteries for the clock. I cannot imagine what that combination looked like on the X-ray. They were not amused as the lady who searched my case said that chocolate looks like Semtex to an X-ray machine. So never, ever mention the ‘B’ word or you are guaranteed to miss your flight. My wife had also accidentally packed some liquid cosmetics in her hand luggage and was thoroughly searched and roundly told off by a Rosa Kleb doppelgänger. The expensive cosmetic was thrown into a bin in front of her, accompanied by a smug look. Thinking this rather funny I went to take a photograph and was quickly pounced upon and sternly told that photographing the staff was not allowed. Even the most patient of us get fed up when the Bin Laden lookalike swans through the gate without comment while innocent old ladies are searched and questioned.
Once in the departure lounge, there are yet more boring hours to pass. Why is it that wherever you are going on holiday it takes at least a day to get there? We have to visit the ‘duty free’ shop for something to do. The shop is just an excuse to sell bored people very overpriced bottles of spirits and even more overpriced bottles of water. Small bottles of water selling at ten times the supermarket price are the norm. You can’t take your own water with you of course so you have to pay whatever they ask as you remember how dry your throat gets on an aeroplane.
The children, if you have them, will invariably also choose some horrendously sticky sweets or biscuits to increase their chances of air sickness. While in the departure lounge we may also try to allay the boredom by buying a meal. “Have whatever you like kids” you say, while in warm and generous holiday mood, as you see another £60 or so of your precious holiday money disappearing into the ever-greedy till of a fast food outlet, in exchange for some artery-blocking rubbish that you would not allow them to eat any other time. Don’t worry if you do not have any children. There are plenty to go round as you will find once you sit down to eat and when you board the aircraft.
At last, after we have glanced at the departure screen so many times that we are beginning to feel like a deranged stalker with OCD, our flight is called. Is it just me who has always chosen to sit near to gate 1 when our aircraft is suddenly announced as departing from gate 46? Why do they keep the departure gate number a secret until the last minute? We grab our hand luggage, wait patiently for the child or partner who has chosen just that moment to go to the toilet and rush off to the boarding gate. How the people monitoring the security cameras must laugh! Naturally, we needn’t have rushed or even screamed through the toilet door at our tardy child as there is now another long delay. We all stand around like cattle waiting at the abattoir, with a slightly fixed smile and a hopeful expression. At least the cattle don’t know what is coming.
A sweetly-voiced airline operative eventually announces that we can form an orderly queue and show our tickets and passports yet again. A last minute fevered check ensues as all passengers pat their pockets and grin with relief as they confirm, yet again, that they have not lost either boarding pass nor their passport. We slowly shuffle forward and finally it is our turn to rush across to the waiting bus. Again, no need to have rushed as the last few passengers slowly saunter across to the bus and stop to sort out their hand luggage and their many carrier bags full of sandwiches, cakes, duty-free bottles and biscuits before boarding. Come on Mrs Pudding, they might take off without us.
Annoyingly, the very people who were in no rush to get on the bus are now first off, while the rest of us try to be patient as the very fat lady in front of us struggles to get to the doorway of the bus as she gathers her numerous bags of bottles, biscuits, cakes and perfume. Finally, we are climbing the steps into the aircraft. If we are flying with a budget airline, such as EasyJet, there is now the usual scrum to get our seats together. If we have been delayed by Mr and Mrs Pudding on the bus, we often find that we are not sitting together, with half the party at the other end of the plane. If we have pre-booked seats, this is that magic moment when we find that we are sitting right in front of Mr and Mrs Pudding’s increasingly noisy and grubby children. I wonder why they wanted such a large family?
Now sadly, believe it or not, not all children are well behaved these days, unless they are, of course, our own, who can usually do no wrong in our eyes. The children sitting behind us will subject your seat to a constant rhythmic kicking, especially if you are trying to sleep. Turning around and glaring at them can be dangerous as well, as Mr Pudding is invariably sour-faced, built like a gorilla and will be over-sensitive to any criticism of his delightful children, real or implied. The mother will lie down, cover her eyes with a pretty blindfold and recline her seat into the lap of the person behind her, secure in the certain knowledge that the airline staff should be looking after her children anyway. She will probably also wear earplugs, so that she arrives relaxed and looking her best. You on the other hand have the prospect of arriving hot, sweaty, irritable and exhausted. Children cry when their ears hurt, they cry from boredom, they cry when they feel sick or sometimes they Children just cry because they can.
After another age, if you are lucky, the aircraft will start to taxi. If not, yet another delay will be announced as the overworked ground crew desperately try to find the luggage of the passenger who did not turn up for the flight. Airlines are not allowed to fly with unaccompanied luggage, for obvious security reasons and in the present high security climate this is a good idea. The aircrew will now start the fascinating safety lecture which they have performed thousands of times before. They will explain what to do if the masks descend from the ceiling of the plane and also where to find your inflatable life vest. Remember, you put your mask on first before helping others. You will be told not to actually inflate this while you are inside the aircraft, so presumably you blow it up as you whizz down the escape chute into the sea? All this is carefully explained on a card in the seat pocket, which nobody ever reads. The aircraft then rumbles along what feels like very badly maintained potholed roads until it parks expectantly at the start of the runway.
Finally, the cabin crew all take their seats and strap themselves in. The engine sound increases to a fever pitch, then continues to increase far past the point that you would expect any engine to stand without falling to bits. My car goes quite fast with the engine at 2000 revolutions per minute, yet a jet engine can run at 36,000 revolutions per minute. Scary stuff. I hope they have kept the bearings well oiled. You can feel the tension in the other passengers as you look around the cabin. Some are staring straight ahead, gripping the arms of the seat with white knuckles. Some are pretending to look nonchalant or staring blankly out of the window as though they have never seen grass verges before. Few will admit that they are frightened, yet all are aware that take-off and landing are by far the most dangerous times for an aircraft of any size. The engine noise increases to an impossible pitch, then the pilot releases the brake and massive acceleration forces us back into our seat. We rumble faster and faster along the runway until it seems that we must soon run out of room. Surely it is time to rotate, you think.
The pilot pulls back on the yoke or more likely, the computer makes a decision concerning ground speed. Suddenly, the rumbling along the rough surface of the runway stops and you see the ground fast disappearing below you. The aircraft tilts to a ridiculous angle and you start to feel relief that you are airborne at last. The relief is short lived however as your anxiety returns when the pilot immediately halves the throttle settings as soon as we are a few hundred feet up, to comply with noise regulations and to increase fuel economy. The engines grow suddenly quiet and you secretly wish that he had stayed on full throttle for a few more seconds. After all, it is not his fuel bill is it?
The next few hours pass in something of a boring daze. As in hospital, each hour on an aircraft feels like at least four and you look forward to any event to break the monotony. Airlines know this of course, so they are soon round with expensive drinks and novelties. If the flight includes a meal then this highlight is eagerly anticipated, although the loud complaints of the children behind can be irritating. The dolls-house size of the portions is usually met by amusement by most adults but children will complain loudly if deprived of their usual diet of chips, turkey twizzlers and tomato ketchup. Mum will ignore them while dad will demand the missing tomato ketchup from the by now very frazzled flight attendant and glower at you if you stare to hard as he does so.
The rest of the flight will pass in yet more extreme boredom, broken only by more kicking of your seat by the mini-lout behind. If you are lucky, the person in front will not recline their seat into your meal, forcing you to fold up your tray and to perch your drink and meal on your chest, just under your chin. Perhaps you will be lucky enough not to have the seat behind the baby or toddler who (quite naturally) does not know about clearing their ears by swallowing and who is screaming as though they are being tortured, which they are, in a way. Try to remember kindly that it is not their fault and that most children hate holidays anyway. Finally, just when you thought your own boredom and torture would never end, we will start to descend and will be on final approach for thirty minutes or so. If it takes so long to climb up there in the first place, then so long to descend again, many of us will wonder why they did not fly lower in the first place and save all that climbing and descending nonsense.
With much ear-popping and swallowing, we eventually descent to a couple of thousand feet and can see houses, swimming pools and roads with tiny cars on them. The children behind us will still have amazing energy from all the sweets and fizzy pop that they have consumed and will loudly explain what they can see to their parents and to the entire cabin. You will fly around like this for what seems like ages although there is not usually any truth in the myth that the pilot is just looking for the airport.
Finally, with what many pilots still amusingly call a controlled crash, we hit the runway with a bang and the co-pilot will apply the brakes. It seems to amuse him or her to stop the aircraft as quickly and violently as is possible, so their passengers have to make a grab for their carrier bags full of bottles of spirits and uneaten biscuits, before they disappear under the seats in front.
After a particularly hard landing, one co-pilot is reputed to have said over the tannoy “Please leave you safety belts fastened while my colleague attempts to taxi what is left of the aircraft to the terminal building”. Oh you card!
After taxiing for what seems an age, the aircraft finally arrives at the stand reserved for it or sometimes just randomly stops on a concrete apron a long way from the terminal building. Eventually the doors are opened and the other passengers rush to get out as quickly as possible. The thought crosses your mind that they may know something that you don’t but finally after the panic subsides you reach the top of the steps.
Whatever time of the day or night you land, if you are anywhere south of Paris a wall of heat will meet you, in stark contrast to the almost chilly air conditioned atmosphere that you have become used to. You too rush down the steps, eager to get into the cool terminal building. If you are lucky you may walk straight into the terminal building but all too often it means a cramped and sweaty bus ride to get there. We landed at Limoges airport once and the pilot taxied right up to the door of the tiny terminal building. That was what flying used to be like. Once inside, everyone rushes off to the luggage carousel, in the vain hope that the luggage unloaders are eager to unload the aircraft. Although you may be longing for the toilet, you don’t dare go or allow the children to go in case you miss your luggage arriving onto the carousel. People crowd around the carousel, necks straining to see if the first cases have arrived on it. You gently try to push your way to the front, trying not to elbow Mr Gorilla out of the way. Other passengers will form a solid human barrier to stop you getting anywhere near the front and even when, forty minutes later, a few cases appear on the belt, you doubt your own ability to remember what your own cases look like and to reach across to them if you do remember. Your own massive cases will have doubled in weight by the time you lift them off the carousel and you will make a mental note to pack very much less next time.
Flying is generally incredibly safe and very few aircraft crash every year. At any one time, day or night, there are around six thousand aircraft in the air at any one time. However, just because flying is safe does not make it enjoyable. Air crashes are incredibly rare although that is not a lot of consolation if you happen to be on the one that does. The last five minutes must be the worst as it takes that long to hurtle towards the ground.
I let the train take the strain. Train crashes are even rarer. Flying is too much like hard work.
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